Monday, November 18, 2002

Locke was No Libertarian

People often think of Locke as a libertarian. They see him as the one who proposed that the state’s purpose was merely to protect the property of the people from seizure and that the state had no right to seize the property of any citizen against his will. Neither of these things is the case.

Locke believed that the state’s role was to act according to its determinations of moral rights and duties. But one of the moral duties of every person who had plenty was to help others who could not sustain themselves. He said of every citizen, “[W]hen his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he as much as he can to preserve the rest of mankind” (Second Treatise, #6). Therefore, if the state were to tax the wealthy in order to distribute wealth to those unable to sustain themselves, this would be an appropriate determination of moral rights and duties. Locke would thus have supported mandatory taxation for a welfare net.

Consent of the governed was required for taxation, but this is merely democratic, majoritarian consent. According to Locke, by living in a society, one gave one’s consent to acquiesce to the majority’s determinations of moral rights and duties to be enforced by the state. Therefore, if the minority did not like to pay tax for a welfare net, this would be irrelevant to the matter. The taxation would be just.

Locke certainly championed the rights of the people not to have their property taken by the government against their will. The Founding Fathers based their justification of the American Revolution on his reasoning. But the idea was merely that it isn’t true that whatever the state says is righteous confiscation of property is so. The idea wasn’t that the state mustn’t take your property unless you give your okay or unless they are going to use the funds to protect your proptery. In addition, commonsense moral principles and majority rule were constraints on the right of the state to tax. And one of the commonsense moral principles he had in mind was that one ought to sacrifice for those unable to sustain themselves. Thus, Locke’s idea would support taxation for welfare. Locke was no libertarian.